Giant Pandas are rare enough on their own, but the opportunity to hug one? Almost unheard of – unless you are in Chendu, China.
My opportunity for some up close and personal panda time came at the Chendu Research Base and Giant Panda Breeding Center, the world’s premier panda conservation facility. After viewing pandas in zoos for years, being able to hold one of these cuddly looking creatures has long been on my bucket list.
The 165 acre Panda Base is a beautiful park of rare plants and assorted panda habitats, crisscrossed with manicured pathways. Its home to more than 120 pandas, some of whom have their homes to themselves while younger ones share their pens and interact with one another to the delight of the visitors.
The most popular area within the Panda Base is the Sunshine Nursery. Chendu boasts the most successful panda breeding program in the world and the nursery allows you to see dozens of black and white fur balls rolling around on the floor, taking their first steps and even learning to climb.
It’s also located next door to the place where visitors can have their “panda experience.” Shared time with a young panda is a coveted experience. You can sign up online ahead of time or run to the nursery as soon as the park opens to try and get a slot. Availability is limited. It is also not cheap.
Your 2000 yuan (RMB) or almost $325 is considered a donation for panda preservation. But a few moments with a panda for many, like me, can be priceless.
How long you spend depends on the panda’s mood. This is an endangered species after all and the Research Base is about preserving pandas, not annoying them.
The pandas the public is allowed to pet range in age from about six to 14 months. Our little ball of energy was almost a year old. The appointment included two groups of eight and I was luckily in the first group. We suited up in hospital gowns and gloves and put on booties before entering the visitor part of the nursery building.
When we were ready, the keeper went to get our panda, who apparently knew all too well that the experience meant apples and honey. He bounded down the hallway towards our room, bursting through the door and up on the bench, eager to have snacks. He made quick work of the apple and had moved on to happily sucking on honey covered paws by the time I sat next to him.
It was an unbelievable feeling having a real panda right there with me. I wrapped my arms around him, petting his surprisingly coarse fur. I had to be reminded to look at the camera because I just wanted to take in every minute with him. Mostly oblivious to my presence, he did give me a quick look in the eye at one point. Assessing I had no food to offer, he turned his query to his keeper who squirted more honey on his paw.
All too quickly, they motioned to me to give up my cherished seat next to the guest of honor. My experience lasted about a minute but I took almost as much enjoyment watching the excitement of the others. We were all grinning ear to ear, watching his every lick and slurp as keepers steadily supplied his black furry fists with honey and he tolerated the pats and hugs of his adoring public.
While the money spent may seem a lot for a few short minutes, the experience is a once in a life time opportunity. The donation is what keeps the center going. Pandas are picky eaters and only eat bamboo. Even then, only a certain type of bamboo and lots of it. Each donation is enough to pay for food for one panda for one day.
Only a fraction of those coming to the park take part in the petting. For those who want to simply enjoy the pandas by watching and exploring, the Base does not disappoint. With so many pandas in various stages of their lives, there is plenty to see and do. While pandas are the main attraction, the park also has a few red pandas and some monkeys. There are also shops and restaurants and the park itself is a great place to relax and hang out. It includes a lake with swans and other water fowl to enjoy.
The best time to go to the Chendu Research Base and Giant Panda Breeding Center is in the morning when the pandas are most active. It was raining while we were there and pandas love a good, cold rain.
Admission to the park: 20 RBM
Donation to hold a panda: 2000 RBM
Hours of operation: 7:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
If you plan on doing the petting:
• Sign up online ahead of time so you know when your panda personal time will be.
• If you can’t sign up ahead of time, go immediately to the Sunshine Nursery upon your arrival to get on the list.
• Either way, go early. Pandas are more active in the morning.
• Bring cash. The 2,000 RMB has to be paid in cash. No credit cards accepted.
For your donation, in addition to your panda time, you receive a bag which contains:
• A certificate for display as well as a receipt for your donation
• A stuffed panda
• A t-shirt
• A panda pin
• A book about pandas
• A panda conservation video